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From D.C. to Washington state, why are we so obsessed with candidates’ tax returns?

click to enlarge Rob McKenna, left, and Jay Inslee have sparred over tax returns.
  • Rob McKenna, left, and Jay Inslee have sparred over tax returns.

In 2009, President Barack Obama’s federal tax bill came to just under $2 million. How’d his challenger fare? Well, that’s still unclear.

Despite pressure from the Obama campaign, Republican candidate Mitt Romney isn’t releasing his tax returns from before 2010, and now Washington state gubernatorial candidate (and fellow Republican) Rob McKenna is following suit. Democrat Jay Inslee released five years of his returns last month, calling on McKenna to do the same. But McKenna says he won’t release any returns, arguing that it distracts from more important issues.

The practice isn’t new in presidential races, but it’s grabbing more headlines at the state level. In 2004 and 2008 Gov. Christine Gregoire, a Democrat, released returns while two-time Republican challenger Dino Rossi refused to. The issue came up in California’s 2002 gubernatorial race, state races across Texas in 2010 and in a race for a U.S. Senate seat in Wisconsin earlier this year. Even some mayoral races, like the one under way in Portland, have featured calls for tax returns.

“This ultimately is a character issue,” says Joseph Thorndike, political historian and director of the Virginia-based Tax History Project. “Voters think character matters and, for right or wrong, they think they can learn a little about a candidate by looking at their tax returns.”

Romney, McKenna and Rossi are all Republicans, but the issue doesn’t always fall along party lines. In 2010 Republican Texas Gov. Rick Perry released returns while his Democratic challenger, Bill White, resisted for months. This year in Washington, Sen. Michael Baumgartner, R-Spokane, released his two most recent tax returns, calling on Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell to do the same in their race for her U.S. Senate seat. State-level Republicans may find themselves in an awkward spot as their presidential pick refuses to release more returns, but Thorndike says it’s all about the payoff.

“If a GOP candidate thought they could get a big swing by releasing, I think they would do it,” he says. “Politics has always been a dirty business and it may be a little dirtier now than it was.”

The Tax History Project collects and archives presidential tax returns and partial returns that candidates have released. (The records stretch back to Nixon, but also include some of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s that were released by his presidential library.) Soon, project staffers plan to start collecting and archiving state candidates’ tax returns, too.

Nothing mandates that candidates release returns, but Thorndike says most can’t resist the political pressure once media, voters or opponents call on them to release. When someone refuses, it’s news that keeps voters visiting websites and cable news channels.

“Some of these tax return issues are just explosively popular,” he says. “Media is prompting [some requests for returns], but they’re following the interests of their readers.”

Voters are increasingly aware of income inequality and have higher expectations for accountability from their candidates, says University of Washington political science professor Mark Smith. They know candidates are rich, but they want to know just how rich.

“There’s been a general movement over time toward transparency,” Smith says. “There’s probably some basic comfort level in terms of knowing they … don’t have something to hide.”

But that’s not enough to explain the phenomenon, Thorndike says. Ultimately, there’s only so much that tax returns can reveal. They give insight into yearly income and taxes paid, but they don’t give enough investment details to really know where a candidate’s money is. Still, when one candidate releases and another refuses, voters wonder what there is to hide.

“Everyone is in favor of transparency the way everyone is in favor of apple pie and baseball,” Thorndike says. “This is just one more technique to go after your opponent.”

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